Fewer than 2 percent of Burundi’s 10.2 million residents use the Internet, but that hasn’t stopped the government from cracking down; this week, amidst demonstrations, WhatsApp and Viber were reportedly blocked—at least by major telecoms—in the southeastern African country.
Protests began in the capital of Bujumbura last weekend after the ruling party nominated president Pierre Nkurunziza for a third term. In response, the army has been deployed to the capital, and phone lines of private radio stations have been cut, according to reports. More than 24,000 people have fled the country in the past month.
Why would a country with only 200,000 or so Internet users bother censoring conversational platforms like Viber and WhatsApp? The key is in the platforms’ use: Both platforms have allowed protesters in the capital to quickly communicate, and privately. Whereas Twitter and Blackberry Messenger were popular during Egypt’s 2011 uprising, Burundians have instead turned toward the popular, but closed, messaging apps.
The latest incident follows the 2013 implementation of a restrictive Press Law that requires journalists in the country to become accredited and reveal their confidential sources under certain circumstances, and imposes strict content restrictions requiring journalist to publish “balanced” information. It also allows for prior censorship, prohibits publication of anything relating to national security, and levies heavy fines on editors and journalists who violate the law.
The Law is currently facing a legal challenge from the Burundi Journalists’ Union and the Media Legal Defence Initiative.
While the Press Law indicates something is amiss, restrictions on Internet usage in a low-Internet penetration country is often harbinger of worse to come, such as when Ethiopia blocked VoIP services in 2012.
Unfortunately, the latest censorship in Burundi might be part of a larger trend across the diverse continent. While Ethiopia continues its use of anti-terror laws to stifle dissent, Tanzania has just passed a draconian cybercrime law. There have been calls from Kenya to South Africa to “do something” about cybercrime, prompting the BBC to recently ask: “Can Africa fight cybercrime and preserve human rights?”
While the answer remains to be seen, we suggest our African readers visit Surveillance Self-Defense—a guide to protecting your communications online—now available in several languages, including French and Arabic.